Posted by Kellie Ryan on December 18, 2015 at 10:10 AM
Hand over political power to the voter
Sheldon Silver's conviction has created an opportunity for New York's good government community to demand change. Over the week, a veritable chorus of civic leaders and concerned elected officials have issued militant calls for ethics reform.
We don't know which is worse, Sheldon Silver's thievery or the "government reformers" who think you can make legislators more ethical by enacting more detailed codes of conduct and more bureaucracy to enforce them. What needs reform is Albany's highly partisan political arrangement, which allows party leaders in the Legislature to exercise the "absolute power that corrupts absolutely."
Silver is a case in point. He served in the Assembly for 39 years and as speaker for 21 years. He was the product of and then the boss of the Manhattan Democratic Party's powerful Lower East Side machine. Silver was elected and re-elected in partisan primaries — which exclude the growing number of independent voters — with turnouts averaging 12 percent of Democratic Party voters and margins in the range of 90 percent. On at least 14 occasions he ran unopposed. His general election margins averaged 85 percent, and in 2010 he ran unopposed.
Silver ruled the Assembly with an iron fist, commanding loyalty by stifling opposition, picking committee chairs, doling out monetary stipends, and controlling what bills got the floor. Silver crushed an assemblyman, Michael Bragman, who challenged his leadership in 2000. He, along with the Republican Senate majority leader and the governor, decided how the state budget would be spent. The Legislature rarely held public hearings on bills, and most passed with no debate.
New York doesn't need ethics reform. Silver broke the law and no ethics code would have prevented that. What New York needs is a political process that gives power to the voters and ends party and backroom control.
We need "top two" nonpartisan primaries so the 3 million independent voters in New York can vote in primaries — state law currently bars them from doing so. We need a genuinely nonpartisan redistricting commission so that the voters can choose their elected officials and not the other way around. We need a nonpartisan election board and same day voter registration. We need a unicameral legislature like they have in Nebraska so that our elected representatives can serve their constituents and not run errands for the "three men in a room."
In 2010, Californians dealt with a similarly compromised political process by enacting "top two" nonpartisan primaries and nonpartisan redistricting. The impact was immediate and positive. The process is similar to nonpartisan systems used in 85 percent of U.S. cities. Rather than separate primaries for each political party — which gives party leaders maximum control over candidates and voters — under a "top two" system there is one public primary. All the candidates appear on the same ballot. All voters are eligible to participate and choose the candidates they support, regardless of party. The two most popular candidates then advance to the general election in November. This system gives more power and choice to voters and decreases partisan control over legislators.
Voters in Arizona and South Dakota will consider "top two" and anti-corruption measures in 2016. Legislators from Michigan to New Mexico, in partnership with grass-roots reform activists, are pushing for real structural change.
If we want to change the outcomes in Albany, we need to change the inputs.
Harry Kresky is a New York attorney and general counsel to Independentvoting.org. He was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to serve on the NYC Charter Revision Commission in 2002. John Opdycke is president of Open Primaries, a national political reform organization.